Early Impressions: HITMAN
In this Crossfader series, our video games staff takes a look at early versions of upcoming releases so that you can know which hype trains to board.
The best part of a Rubik’s cube is that even once it has been solved, there’s still joy to be found solving it again… and again… and again. Stealth games are fundamentally nothing other than thickly veiled Rubik’s cubes, questing the player with map traversal that can only be accomplished through a series of logic-based maneuvers. Whether it’s dressing up as Chef Boyardee to infiltrate a soup kitchen or crawling in vents from A to B in order to interact with item X, the entire purpose of stealth games is to supply our ADD stricken macho-egos with the cathartic release we don’t really get when we complete that 1000-piece puzzle of a school of freshwater bass.
HITMAN and its stealth peers, SPLINTER CELL and METAL GEAR, all play into the same expectation of free-flow map traversal, tasking the player with the simple objective of “execute X” without any indication of what must be done in order to do so. It ought to be noted that the last venture into the mind of Agent 47 was 2012’s HITMAN: ABSOLUTION, a game that ultimately can best be compared to 2010’s SPLINTER CELL: CONVICTION. Both games heavily pulled back on the open environment and began to railroad their gameplay, a very likely (and ultimately unfortunate) inspiration from the stylings Hideo Kojima introduced in 2008’s METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS.
Just further proof that Kojima-san reigns supreme
Whilst this technique worked in Kojima’s favor for bookending his immense narrative backstory, it seemed misguided for both the HITMAN and SPLINTER CELL franchise. HITMAN: ABSOLUTION ultimately wound up as a solid stealth game in its own right, but highlight maps (Chinatown and Hope) only validated the unfortunate abandonment of HITMAN: BLOOD MONEY’s sandbox approach to its level design.
“A World of Assassination” is how the latest HITMAN markets itself, removing any subtitle in order to make it clear that the franchise is starting fresh. A season-based, episodic level approach is supposed to signal a return to the roots of the HITMAN franchise, willfully dedicated to solid level design and less concerned with delivering a compelling narrative. While that’s certainly exciting news for BLOOD MONEY fans, it also feels disappointingly lazy from Square Enix to turn their franchise into nothing other than a series of puzzles, because, at the end of the day, every mission in this franchise tasks you with the same objective as the one before it. The latest HITMAN seems to follow this trend.
Dress as captain, dress as cook, dress as cop and kill the crook
First and foremost, it should be stated that this HITMAN beta is not a beta in any sense of the word. The two maps play out like demos for how the actual game will play, and won’t be found in the final product. Instead, the entire experience is an elongated tutorial. This isn’t bad, of course, but how the game plays, even in this highly scripted environment, brings up a series of unexpected concerns. Unlike other quality stealth titles, HITMAN is based around hiding in crowds, and if there’s one thing to say about crowds, it’s that they’re noisy. Unfortunately, the sound quality here is abysmal. Dialogue can’t be heard at all (and subtitles only seem to appear for key exchanges) and the sound mix is a complete mess. Dialogue lines only seem to ring out through the chatter when you aim the camera away from the speaker, an absolutely absurd and game-breaking fluke when a major mechanic involves eavesdropping on targets.
The other problem that comes with massive amounts of onscreen NPCs is programming the lot of them. The most important facet of a stealth game is that enemies can detect you, and this part of the enemy AI thankfully never falters. Unfortunately, when things get tense, guards traverse the map like they are walking on the moon, travelling at a weird fast-walk tempo, wildly firing at you from across the map. In a post GTA V gaming climate, the least we can expect is enemy AI that takes cover, but you won’t find that here. Goons attack one at a time, teamwork be damned, and “surrendering” to them always results in a clueless guard walking right up to you until their gun is in your face, only for you to snatch it and turn it against them. It also doesn’t help that we are still at the point where just hiding in a box is enough to have the bad guys lose us in a pursuit; that shit was already stretched thin in THE EVIL WITHIN, but it feels painfully dated in a legitimate hardcore stealth game.
This does lead me to one last complaint: It never really made sense why guns existed in HITMAN in the first place. The signature silenced handgun always felt more like a trademark aesthetic than a necessary tool, but I actually managed to successfully complete the final level in under two minutes by sprinting into an “impenetrable fortress,” climbing a pipe, jumping into a bathroom, shooting the target three times in the dick and escaping exactly the way I came in. This was all made easier by the fact that the target doesn’t even try to flee the scene when I barge into his room. These types of dated mechanics are what begin to concern me about the final product. Whether this will be reconciled in the two weeks of the first episode’s impending release is to be discovered, but the fact that going in guns blazing is an option that doesn’t result in immediate death is preposterous. And yet, despite all of these glaring issues, HITMAN is some of the most rewarding fun I’ve had on my PS4, period.
“But you just said Netflix and chill…”
While this would be a hard fail for any other game, I am still willing to give HITMAN the benefit of the doubt. The reason is simple, really: HITMAN has always been a game in which the players set the difficulty for themselves, depending on how elaborate their assassination is. After all, the reward of executing your target only derives from how hard it is to bypass all the other facets of security. The fact that the Beta can be completed with little to no effort is certainly frustrating for anyone who demands reward through challenge, but at the very least, HITMAN can always be as hard as one makes it to be.
What can be said in the beta’s favor is that, as always, dying is extremely easy if you’re not careful. Three shots and you’re out is the name of the game. In addition, many of the common complaints uttered against ABSOLUTION have been addressed. Dressing up as a cop no longer results in every member of Chicago PD seeing through your disguise. Instead, only certain, higher-ranking characters can recognize your true identity. These characters are marked with a white circle above their heads, although hopefully they won’t be when setting the difficulty to hardcore. This ultimately makes for more compelling gameplay. Unfortunately, Square Enix thought it would be necessary to still keep the instinct function, HITMAN’s derivative on ASSASSIN’S CREED’s idiot-vision. Thankfully, gamers can just decide never to press that R1 button on their PS4, allowing for a proper challenge.
Ha, tricked you!
The fact that these episodes will be released episodically has certainly been bored into the gamer’s brain through this beta, mostly through voice overs that insist on repeated tries of the same two maps. Thankfully, despite their small size, repeating these two maps is surprisingly enjoyable, ultimately boding well for the rest of the final game. What the two maps prove is that the Rubik’s cube system of the HITMAN franchise is as solid as it has ever been, boasting spectacle amidst puzzling. The stealth functions are solid, and music cues allow for cool escapes that mark the HITMAN franchise as the most 007 stealth game on the market. Hopefully, the minor clipping issues, shoddy AI, and weak sound mix will all be fixed in time for release, but if not, one can still rest assured that, thanks to solid visuals and the undeniable charm of the sandbox structure, HITMAN is a game that old fans will adore, and that newcomers will easily find their way into.